Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development

This graphic compars the cost of servicing suburban development versus urban in Halifax, Canada (in Canadia dollars) Image: Sustainable Prosperity
Public services for suburban development cost more than double the services for urban areas in Halifax, Nova Scotia (figures are in Canadian dollars). Click to enlarge. Image: Sustainable Prosperity

How much more does it cost the public to build infrastructure and provide services for sprawling development compared to more compact neighborhoods? A lot more, according to this handy summary from the Canadian environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

To create this graphic, the organization synthesized a study by the Halifax Regional Municipality [PDF] in Nova Scotia, and the research is worth a closer look.

Halifax found the cost of administering services varied directly in proportion to how far apart homes were spaced. On the rural end, each house sat on a 2.5 acre lot. On the very urban end, there were 92 people dwelling on each acre. Between those two extremes were several development patterns of varying density.

Sprawl is a lot more expensive for municipalities to serve, this study of the Halifax region found. Graph: Halifax Regional Municipality
The denser an area is, the less expensive it becomes to provide infrastructure and services. Graph: Halifax Regional Municipality

Researchers evaluated how much of a given type of infrastructure — like roads or water mains — is needed for each type of development, then calculated the associated capital and maintenance costs per capita. They also determined how factors like travel distances and population density affected the cost of services like fire fighting.

The chart below goes into more detail (all costs are in Canadian dollars). The most sprawling areas impose three times the annual cost per household as the most compact areas. For hard infrastructure like water, sewers, and roads, the high cost of sprawl is even more stark — “ten times the cost of other patterns” over the lifecycle of the investment, according to the authors.

Data: Halifax Regional Municipality
Table: Halifax Regional Municipality
  • anon_coward

    so why are NYC taxes are so high?

  • Jeff

    This is a shot in the dark, and I hate to sound like one of those angry conservative people, but I do think we have much better social services than suburban areas. While the social safety net is far from perfect, there does seem to be a general understanding in the city and its politics that we have a duty to look after the vulnerable and less fortunate among us. Whereas the attitude in the suburbs towards the vulnerable and less fortunate seems to generally be “fuck ’em”.

  • Bolwerk

    Among other things, it might have to do with how much of our tax dollars are pilfered by politicians representing the suburbs.

  • Joe R.

    I was going to say the same thing. It’s pretty obvious most tax money NYC collects isn’t going for infrastructure spending given the horrid condition of much infrastructure here. While we can debate the value of a safety net, I think it’s fair to say that’s where the bulk of NYC taxes go.

  • John D

    so this details the costs…and it get even more pernicious when you discuss who pays.

    expanding water, sewer, streets to new development is paid by the entire ratepayer base through cost averaging — existing, installed customers in compact development patterns subsidize the low-density expansion of utilities.

  • Ari_FS

    Sorry, NYC real estate taxes are especially low compared to the suburbs. Do a quick search and you’ll see. It’s not uncommon for a single family house in a NYC suburb to pay $20,000 annually in RE taxes.

    For example, the average RE taxes on a single family home in Rockland County is $11,000 versus $6,400 for Co-ops in NYC.

  • Ari_FS

    That being said, NYC gets a TON of tax revenue from other sources, such as hotel taxes, sales taxes, income tax, etc. I’d be curious what NYC SPENDS, per capita, compared to the suburbs.

  • Boo

    lol I was thinking the same thing. San Francisco county property tax is higher than all the surrounding counties.

  • Alistair Twiname

    because NY is an expensive place to do business. this study compares low and high density in the same cities it doesn’t say that dense cities are cheaper.

    I’m sure if you looked at Calcutta it would cost less then new york.

  • Andres Dee

    I thought it was “give ’em a bus ticket to the city”.

  • Bolwerk

    This looks at cost of services, now how city finances are managed. Admittedly not so great in NYC.

  • EcoAdvocate

    and not until well after (a year?) the sprawled house(s)/development is built does the tax base factor them in to help pay–by then those roads have long since been built, the sewer, gas electric, by taxes and other rate payers. Thanks guys for subsidizing my house!

  • EcoAdvocate

    that Police Army must cost…an arm and a leg. If we ended the war on drugs, we wouldn’t need so many of that army.

  • anon_coward

    rockland is higher, but i’ve seen plenty of SFH close to the city in the $5000 to $7000 range with decent schools and no state/local taxes or no local taxes

    and these high tax areas the schools are 20 kids per class with 2-3 teachers per class. not like NYC where it’s 30 or more kids in a class

  • Patrick Miner

    Tax rates aren’t neccessarily in proportion to the cost of hard infrastructure. The report says compact infrastructure is cheaper, not that taxes or property values are less in compact areas.

  • Oh really? Plenty? You find me a house close to the city in a good school district with taxes under $7K a year and I’m moving.


  • anon_coward

    there are towns in westchester and NJ like that depending on the home as well. I think Merrick and the area around it in nassau county runs around $6000 or so a year. at least that’s what zillow tells me

  • anon_coward

    the MTA wants $30 BILLION for the next 5 years capital plan. they spent almost $10 billion on 7 train and SAS in the last decade and there is the ESA as well

  • anon_coward

    NYC i get $9300 per person if you do a quick divide of the budget by population

    granted some burbs here cost more than that, but they also have more services in some areas

  • Highly unlikely, check some real estate listings. Westchester, Nassau, and Bergen have the highest property taxes in the United States. Property taxes might be a bit lower in, say, Yonkers, but that’s offset by a resident tax.


  • I’d like to see more of this type of analysis (and for Streetsblog to report more of it). Too often things are presented as “you either live in a house with acres of land or you live in an apartment in the city,” when in reality density matters.

  • EcoAdvocate

    Now show the energy use chart! Even that person who assures you they are “off the grid” drives their motor vehicle into town multiple times per week on roads that ARE the grid…

  • Moncada’s Codpiece

    Choices, graft, and subsidies probably make up a lot of the difference. Additional services cost more. Graft and/or poor controls cost more. And subsidies. It may cost a suburb $3,000 for a basket of services but is the resident taxed that much? There is an imbalance of tax monies from the city to the rest of the state and certain states to other states. This can make the final charge much more than the real cost of providing the set of services outlined in the study.

  • Mofhrm

    What about other costs? Like healthcare – with higher densities are people sick more often? Therefore affecting sick days at work, at school? Or are people healthier living in high density places? Are costs they are looking at is it operational or capital or both?
    In the first chart they are comparing urban and suburban as though they have all the same amenities, they do not. Same as rural. Once you take away sidewalks, waste and water the cost is negligible. They should actually show how many people for in each category.

  • Matt

    Is it possibly because these newer suburbs are over leveraged on debt? A lot of them, especially the exurban areas have only recently (last 20 or so years) began to build out and haven’t seen the true cost of a lot of the infrastructure & services yet, because they’ve kicked it down the road. The inner ring suburbs are feeling it as they keep trying to refinance their debt and eventually cut services. I’m not sure if that really plays into what you’re saying here, but could potentially be part of it.

  • Laerrus

    People who are off grid don’t need jobs in the city to support themselves.

  • Kyriacos Stavrinides

    What does the NYC have to do with exurban populations, outside the counties that are NYC? Unless the NYC budget is burdened with maintaining the infrastructure of places that aren’t under its direct control, then yours are unbased assumptions.

  • Miles Bader

    The MTA is also famously incompetent at building stuff at a reasonable cost. To determine what it should cost (were they competent), divide what the MTA spends by five… ><

  • war_on_hugs

    I believe he’s saying that NYC taxes only seem high because they actually approach the full cost of services. In comparison to suburban/exurban areas who build debt-leveraged infrastructure without adequate revenue for future maintenance.

  • Bryan

    In short, city dwellers are healthier overall, but a lack of green space can have a negative effect on mental health. This is negated by increasing green space in cities. Then there is a lot of discrepancy among different cities. But overall, city dwellers tend to be richer and better educated which leads to better life choices that impact overall health:

  • Bryan

    Another big issue is the public health and how sprawl impacts the health of everyone do to externalities that are not captured at the individual level:

  • JoeDokes999

    The suburban lifestyle is extremely unhealthy. It emphasizes cars for transportation. This means more obesity and car accidents. While 30,000 people die each year in car accidents, how many die in public transportation accidents, for example?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    What would Bratton do then ?

  • Alexander Vucelic

    suburbanites also get Killed and maimed by traffic violence at higher rates than the urbane

    lets be clear 92/ acre is hardly ‘high density. It’s 1/2 the density of the outer boros.

  • ahwr

    lets be clear 92/ acre is hardly ‘high density. It’s 1/2 the density of the outer boros.

    NYC average is ~42/acre.

    Here is density by neighborhood.


  • Alexander Vucelic

    great Map – fabulöus Find

    What Is denaity w/o SI ?

  • David Clark

    That difference is only $166/month- a tiny amount compared to the savings in monthly house payments or rent. Further many of the costs seem skewed to favor density. For instance, people on two acre lots have less need for parks, but you show higher parks costs. In many cases the water cost is ZERO because of wells. There is ZERO need for storm water services on most 2 acre lots. Crime is usually a lot lower in the suburbs, but they show higher police costs. Why is governance more costly – small town generally have less corruption?
    I think this study is skewed to favor the smart growth mantra.


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